June 26-27, 2008 - Marcy & Haystack Mountains
In ‘06, I solo hiked the Adirondacks' Great Range from Route 73 to Haystack and back out to the Garden, over a course of 3 days. Last year, I set out with a young coworker to repeat that hike, but we began with Lower Wolfjaw via Johns Brook. Turns out that his enthusiasm greatly exceeded his determination… we quit after just one peak. That was quite unsatisfying. For the past year, I’ve been looking forward to my “annual” Great Range hike, and once again chose to go solo. I again chose late June, in order to take advantage of the long days that we enjoy this time of year.
Over the winter, I bought a new, larger pack, and am now able to carry all of my lightweight weekend gear inside the pack, including an extra large foam pad, sleeping bag, and bear canister. With my “full pack” still weighing in under 30 pounds, including food and water, I felt ready to go. My Day 1 itinerary called for hiking from the Keene Valley trailhead known as "The Garden" to Mount Marcy, then down to Four Corners and into Panther Gorge.
After work Wednesday, I finished packing, grabbed 2 hours of sleep, and hit the Buffalo section of I-90 at 2 AM. At around 3AM, I hit a raccoon. At around 6AM, I nearly hit a deer, but we both escaped that trauma. Finally, at about 9AM, after driving through occasional light rain for hours, my old Honda pulled into the Garden parking lot. I paid my money to the envelope slot and readied my gear. It was 10 o’clock when I began my walk along Johns Brook (in the rain), and seemed to make good time as I broke the long day into physical, and more importantly, mental sections.
First comes the Southside Trail junction, then the first lean-to, the second lean-to, followed by a long section of forest that concludes with a downhill to the trail register near the interior outpost. I signed in and walked over to inspect the new suspension bridge over Johns Brook. It’s a nice wooden deck bridge supported by (a pair of?) cables. The approach to the bridge had not yet been completed, requiring some climbing and high-stepping to access the new structure. The grassy meadow by the ranger cabin is a nice contrast to the miles of forest that you walk through to get there. Sun-loving wildflowers grow within the tall grass, and you might see a snake or a deer enjoying the open areas as well. Getting back to business, I donned my pack and headed up the brook toward JBL and a refill of my water bottle (in the rain).
My next goal was the Bushnell Falls lean-to. Before reaching the side trail to the falls, I was passed by several young men wearing simple clothes and straw hats. I had intended to visit the falls that I hadn’t seen since my second ever High Peak hike up to Haystack in ‘02, but the voices down the hill meant that others were enjoying those falls, so I continued onward. Like Terri (Tmax), I chose to split right at Bushnell Falls and hike up the Hopkins Trail toward Mount Marcy. I’d never hiked that particular section of trail, and just wanted to see it. The trail is obviously lightly used, and was quite closed in at times. The smells of Hemlock, and Balsam permeated the air, as did the beautiful melodies of song birds. I had a great time hiking up that trail….. until it flattened out near the top. The flat section that leads to the Van Hoevenberg trail is quite wet; boggy you might say, but the pleasant trail leading up to it more than compensates. Besides, the distance to Marcy is virtually the same either way you go.
Continuing along the very familiar trail, I soon found myself on the “floating” planks that guide one through the Marcy marsh. I scrambled up the steep rocks that guard the top of New York, remembering how difficult that same section was in February one year, when I lent my crampons to a young man I was hiking with while I made my way up with just snowshoes. The open summit was refreshingly cool and windy, allowing me to once again don my rain shell. The cloud I was standing in precluded any views, but I have my memories of a brilliant April day three years ago to sustain me. The state mile-high point was all mine that day, but I didn’t linger. Working my way down the south face, I followed the cairns that guide you down to tree line and to the sometimes steep path where I fell last November and smacked my noggin on the slick rock. I remember that, too!
Soon enough, I reached the trail junction at the small clearing known as Four Corners, where a lean-to once stood (years ago, there was also a stone shelter on Marcy’s summit). That junction is where I again ventured onto new (for me) ground. Panther Gorge has been calling me for the past year or so, and this would be my day to see it. The descent into the “gorge” was much easier than I’d imagined, although I must admit that I didn’t review the guide book’s descriptions for this part of the hike. I found the trail to be easy to moderate through a pleasant open woods with occasional views of Haystack and Marcy. By the time I reached the lower junction, it was dark enough that I needed to wear my headlamp. Since my ADK/National Geo. map indicated the lean-to was 3/10 of a mile farther, I kept walking. I continued walking in the dark even after the sound of the brook faded (lean-tos are always near a good water source).
After more than 30 minutes, I turned back. This time, I scanned the dark ground looking for side trails. When I was nearly back at the same lower junction, I found the path to the lean-to. It was just 100 feet from the junction, and I had walked over an hour in the dark for nothing!
Never… trust… maps… The shelter was mine alone that night. I refilled my water bottles, drank, ate a couple of the lentil burritos that Jane had made at my request, and hit the sack (I’d forgone a stove and pot in favor of all cold food). I had hiked all day on just 2 hours of sleep the night before, so that sleeping bag was more welcome than usual.
Though the sun lit the morning sky at 5 A.M., I slept until 8. After stuffing 2 more lentil burritos down my throat, I began my climb up “the steepest trail in the Adirondacks”. This is what I’d been looking forward to - “the steepest trail in the Adirondacks”, complete with guide book warnings of dangerous ledges that you should never attempt with a full pack! The trail started out quite moderate, then steepened considerably as it gained altitude on the south side of the Haystack massif. The path was not covered by large boulders, like some of the other Adirondack High Peaks. This trail had several pitches of smooth, steep slabs to walk or climb up, like part of Algonquin Peak or the Ore Bed Brook trail, but it was “business as usual” for the Adirondacks. After not too long or too much effort, and after just one fall resulting in a scraped elbow, the bare rock, green lichen-covered summit cone of Haystack Mountain was in view. That trail was not any steeper or tougher than many other mountain trails…. I was so disappointed!
As I emerged from tree line onto the open summit cone, the black flies converged. A light rain fell, moistening the little beasts that clung to my arms. That gave me a good reason to don my rain shell, which had the added benefit of keeping some of the little black devils at bay. I soon stepped up onto the small summit rock and absorbed the incredible views of Mount Marcy’s steep slopes as they plunged deeply into Panther Gorge. With a few photos snapped, including the usual “Hero Shot” (self portrait on the summit), I continued down the other side of the mountain toward the Little Haystack col. Just as I began my descent, I heard the low rumble of thunder. Great, and me with my pair of adjustable length lightning rods in hand!
Just seconds after the rumble, both of my feet slipped out from under me and I came crashing down onto my backpack and left elbow. Ow. I took an anatomical inventory, climbed back to my feet, and continued. A minute or so after that, I stumbled, took a few quick uncontrolled steps, and once again came crashing down onto my back… and left elbow. Censored!
I remained on the ground a little longer that time, but other than a very bruised elbow, I was still all right. I had lost confidence in my footing, and very carefully climbed down the remaining distance into the saddle between Haystack and it’s little namesake. As I began the short walk across the col, a lone female hiker approached and asked what I was hiking that day. When I told her, she said, “are you Bob?”. It was Terri (“TMax“). She was doing a similar hike, but via a different route. I asked her if she had heard my cry as I took that second fall moments before, but luckily she’d missed it. After falling 3 times and hearing thunder while on a high summit (and feeling my age), I had decided not to continue over the remaining peaks of the Great Range - I would hike out to my car. We continued in opposite directions as I passed through the col and climbed steeply up the rocky cone of Little Haystack. I looked around, taking photos and mental notes, because I need to climb this peak again next winter if I want to complete my quest for “Winter 46er” status.
After walking over the rocky puddle-covered summit of Little Haystack, I descended to the main Range Trail, climbed up over a big hump, and began my final 9-mile descent to the “Garden” parking lot. Slant Rock, Bushnell Falls, Johns Brook Lodge, a lean-to, another lean-to, fading light, more thunder, and finally the parking lot. I’d made it out before dark. Car, food, water, a soft seat! Another Great Range attempt in the books… and this old guy is quite satisfied this time around. - A
__________________Remembering Buffalo's Tim Russert 1950-2008
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